How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town - The New York Times
But it turned out that only a few dozen white nationalists attended the rally, and the Newnan they had imagined no longer existed. Its population had more than doubled in less than 20 years, drawing an increasingly diverse collection of newcomers. Newnan was changing and many in the community wanted to embrace that change more openly. A year after the white nationalist rally, the town made an effort to do so by putting up 17 large-scale banner portraits, images of the ordinary people who make up Newnan.
They hang from the perches of brick buildings around downtown. There’s Helen Berry, an African-American woman who for years worked at a sewing factory. Wiley Driver, a white worker who folded and packed blankets at a local mill before his death in 2017. Jineet Blanco, a waitress who arrived in Newnan carrying her Mexican traditions and dreams. And then there were the Shah sisters.
A portrait of Aatika and Zahraw Shah wearing hijabs was displayed on the side of an empty building in downtown Newnan. The sisters were born in Georgia and had lived in Newnan since 2012, after they moved from Athens, Ga. They attended a local high school in the county. Their father, an engineer, moved to the United States from Pakistan, as did their mother.
The reaction to their portrait was fast and intense. James Shelnutt was driving through downtown when he saw it. “I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life,” he said. “There should be no positive portrayals of it.” Mr. Shelnutt turned to Facebook, encouraging residents to complain. The thread quickly devolved into anti-Muslim attacks and name-calling. Some posters referred to Sept. 11 and argued that believers of Islam were violent.
One woman said there were not enough Muslims in Newnan for the Shahs to be included in the art installation in the first place.
The portraits were meant to be inclusive, upend stubborn preconceptions and unravel the cocoons people had created within the community. And they did — but they also exposed how immigration and demographic change have recast the racial dynamics that once defined America, adding new layers of anxiety on the old tensions that persist across the country and in small towns like Newnan.
“Seeing Newnan,” as the art installation is called, was created by the photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Mr. Hancock and Chad Davidson, director of the University of West Georgia’s School of the Arts, were in Providence, R.I., for an art conference in 2015 when they saw one of Ms. Meehan’s installations.
Mr. Hancock was drawn to the beauty of the portraits, but he was also thinking about his almost exclusively white world in Newnan. “My children told me, ‘Dad, you are so open, but your circle is not inclusive,’” he said. “When I thought about it, they were right.” So he reached out to Ms. Meehan and told her about Newnan.
He told her about the town’s race and class tensions, about the old Newnan versus the new Newnan, how residents who grew up here have watched the population explode. And yet, “I just felt like we were living apart,” Mr. Hancock said. “We were in these little bubbles. I thought this project could pierce the bubbles.”
Ms. Meehan arrived in Newnan in 2016 as part of the Artist in Residence program. She had done similar portraiture projects in her hometown, Brockton, Mass., and most recently in Silicon Valley. In Newnan, she was met with both open arms and some suspicion — she was a white liberal from the North who had not spent much time in the South.
Ms. Meehan was in Newnan for the big moments and the small. A fall high school homecoming. The reunion of a class from 1954 who attended an all-black high school. Sunday morning services at a church attended by descendants of early settlers. The 2016 election night that ushered in President Trump.
She spent more than two years visiting Newnan, witnessing the kind of moments that offer hints about a community’s identity. Newnan was the right place for the project. “Newnan was ready to begin this conversation, and the evidence is that despite the tensions and difficulties, the people ultimately didn’t shut me down,” she said. “They kept inviting me back.”
The post drew nearly 1,000 responses, most of them defending the sisters and accusing Mr. Shelnutt and others of being out-of-touch racists who were resistant to change and religious freedom. Mr. Shelnutt, who grew up in Newnan and owns a small construction company, denied being racist. “I do not feel like the two women in the photo are radical or dangerous,” he said. “I just do not think Newnan should be pushed to embrace Islam.”
The backlash made the sisters realize that much of Newnan didn’t know Newnan. They said it felt especially painful to be singled out. “We have been here seven years,” said Aatika Shah, 22, “and now because they have never seen us and then saw our picture, they somehow think we don’t belong.”
Ms. Meehan’s portraits, which will come down in June, have already had a lasting effect on the town. They have prompted deep conversations between people who had never met. “The truth is, these conversations are hard and uncomfortable and awkward but we need to lean into it,” said the Rev. David Jones II, the pastor of Newnan Presbyterian Church, who plans to use the art installation to organize a retreat about race, gender and identity this year. “We need to talk about who lives in our community and if they are different, why does that make us uncomfortable?”